Take a look at the San Ramon City Council’s official portrait and see what you notice. What’s hard to miss is four white men of about Boomer age standing shoulder to shoulder — and in line with them one young woman rising just above their belly height. She’s about to shake things up there by coaxing the city into the digital age.
She’s Sabina Zafar, architecture leader at GE Digital, a mom, born in Pakistan, and the first woman of color to be elected to the city council. She knew from the start her job wouldn’t be easy, as she’s found out since being elected in November 2018, later as vice-mayor. [In 2021, she’s running for mayor.]
She tells about how a tech executive at a large technology company offered to serve on the city’s planning commission. It was just the opening beat in one of those stories where clear-eyed newcomers confront cataract-clouded beliefs.
Who better than someone with that expertise could help navigate through the coming digital disruption? Never mind that he didn’t know much about planning or roads — knowledge that’s far easier to find than about data.
So she thought. Then came a fellow council member’s objection: the infrastructure committee should have only people who knew about planning or building roads. She was the only vote in favor of the SAP candidate.
“It’s surprising to me is how disconnected we are,” she said. One official won’t even go onto Facebook because “people post bad comments.”
“We don’t even have a mobile app. We did redesign the website two years ago, but,” she laughs, “no one goes to websites anymore. They go to apps. It’s about what people expect.” The website’s arduous series of links for sharing is another embarrassment.
She’s proposed a new city innovation committee, and she’s been recruiting for it. Around San Ramon, her pickings are rich with brainy people with rich tech know-how. Over the last 50 years the place has transformed from wheat fields (world famous in the 1800s) to the new home of South Asian immigrant families. The bulk work in Silicon Valley.
Citizens’ experiences should be as seamless as on Amazon, she says. The city should have one point of contact linking any government need, such as a link to the Department of Motor Vehicles site.
Recently, she also applied for a Facebook program in which they studied how cities communicate. Hers was the only California city to be selected, she said. Soon a delegation came to visit for sit-down interviews with her, the mayor, and city staff.
Chief innovation officers she’s talked to from around the Bay Area and elsewhere tell her that only about four percent of all U.S. cities are looking at using technology to improve local government.
“It’ll take some time,” she says, “but we have to start somewhere.”